Surveillance for safety after immunization: Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS)--United States, 1991-2001

MMWR Surveill Summ. 2003 Jan 24;52(1):1-24.


Problem/condition: Vaccines are usually administered to healthy persons who have substantial expectations for the safety of the vaccines. Adverse events after vaccinations occur but are generally rare. Some adverse events are unlikely to be detected in prelicensure clinical trials because of their low frequency, the limited numbers of enrolled subjects, and other study limitations. Therefore, postmarketing monitoring of adverse events after vaccinations is essential. The cornerstone of monitoring safety is review and analysis of spontaneously reported adverse events.

Reporting period covered: This report summarizes the adverse events reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) from January 1, 1991, through December 31, 2001.

Description of systems: VAERS was established in 1990 under the joint administration of CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to accept reports of suspected adverse events after administration of any vaccine licensed in the United States. VAERS is a passive surveillance system: reports of events are voluntarily submitted by those who experience them, their caregivers, or others. Passive surveillance systems (e.g., VAERS) are subject to multiple limitations, including underreporting, reporting of temporal associations or unconfirmed diagnoses, and lack of denominator data and unbiased comparison groups. Because of these limitations, determining causal associations between vaccines and adverse events from VAERS reports is usually not possible. Vaccine safety concerns identified through adverse event monitoring nearly always require confirmation using an epidemiologic or other (e.g., laboratory) study. Reports may be submitted by anyone suspecting that an adverse event might have been caused by vaccination and are usually submitted by mail or fax. A web-based electronic reporting system has recently become available. Information from the reports is entered into the VAERS database, and new reports are analyzed weekly. VAERS data stripped of personal identifiers can be reviewed by the public by accessing The objectives of VAERS are to 1) detect new, unusual, or rare vaccine adverse events; 2) monitor increases in known adverse events; 3) determine patient risk factors for particular types of adverse events; 4) identify vaccine lots with increased numbers or types of reported adverse events; and 5) assess the safety of newly licensed vaccines.

Results: During 1991-2001, VAERS received 128,717 reports, whereas >1.9 billion net doses of human vaccines were distributed. The overall dose-based reporting rate for the 27 frequently reported vaccine types was 11.4 reports per 100,000 net doses distributed. The proportions of reports in the age groups <1 year, 1-6 years, 7-17 years, 18-64 years, and >/= years were 18.1%, 26.7%, 8.0%, 32.6%, and 4.9%, respectively. In all of the adult age groups, a predominance among the number of women reporting was observed, but the difference in sex was minimal among children. Overall, the most commonly reported adverse event was fever, which appeared in 25.8% of all reports, followed by injection-site hypersensitivity (15.8%), rash (unspecified) (11.0%), injection-site edema (10.8%), and vasodilatation (10.8%). A total of 14.2% of all reports described serious adverse events, which by regulatory definition include death, life-threatening illness, hospitalization or prolongation of hospitalization, or permanent disability. Examples of the uses of VAERS data for vaccine safety surveillance are included in this report.

Interpretation: As a national public health surveillance system, VAERS is a key component in ensuring the safety of vaccines. VAERS data are used by CDC, FDA, and other organizations to monitor and study vaccine safety. CDC and FDA use VAERS data to respond to public inquiries regarding vaccine safety, and both organizations have published and presented vaccine safety studies based on VAERS data. VAERS data are also used by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the Vaccine and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee to evaluate possible adverse events after vaccinations and to develop recommendations for precautions and contraindications to vaccinations. Reviews of VAERS reports and the studies based on VAERS reports during 1991-2001 have demonstrated that vaccines are usually safe and that serious adverse events occur but are rare.

Public health actions: Through continued reporting of adverse events after vaccination to VAERS by health-care providers, public health professionals, and the public and monitoring of reported events by the VAERS working group, the public health system will continue to be able to detect rare but potentially serious consequences of vaccination. This knowledge facilitates improvement in the safety of vaccines and the vaccination process.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Adverse Drug Reaction Reporting Systems
  • Aged
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Databases, Factual
  • Female
  • Guillain-Barre Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Guillain-Barre Syndrome / etiology
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Intussusception / epidemiology
  • Intussusception / etiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Vaccines / adverse effects*


  • Vaccines